The United States are in a bit of an unexpected spot on Sunday. If they manage to defeat Portugal , they'll clinch a spot in the knockout stage of the World Cup before they ever take the pitch against Germany. And with Portugal's numerous injuries and suspensions -- plus the fact that they were downright awful against Germany -- that appears to be a real possibility.
But the Portugal camp says that Cristiano Ronaldo is completely fit, which would obviously be a problem for the United States. When he's at his best, Ronaldo is arguably the best player in the world, but he was average against Germany and looked limited in Portugal's pre-World Cup warm-up. His fitness, or lack thereof, could make all the difference for his team.
USA-Portugal lineups announced
USA-Portugal lineups announced
A draw isn't the end of the world for either team, but it would put Portugal in a situation where they'd have to hope for a combination of a multiple-goal win over Ghana and a multiple-goal win by Germany over the USA on the final day. And if Ghana beat Portugal after the USMNT draws this game, they automatically make up the goal differential between them if Germany beats the US by any margin.
Basically, this group is still wide-open for everyone, and a loss would be pretty devastating for either team. In Portugal's case, it would eliminate them entirely.
Both teams have some injury issues to deal with. Jozy Altidore misses out for the United States with a hamstring strain, while Clint Dempsey will play despite a broken nose. Matt Besler and Alejandro Bedoya both came off with knocks in the first leg, but Jurgen Klinsmann says Besler is fit to play. Bedoya might lose his place to Graham Zusi due to the Sporting KC man's set piece delivery.
Portugal are without Fabio Coentrao due to injury, while Pepe is suspended. Hugo Almeida hasn't been ruled out for sure, but isn't expected to start. Goalkeeper Rui Patricio also got hurt in the opener, but is expected to start.
Projected lineups (left to right)
Cristiano Ronaldo vs. Graham Zusi - Against Ghana, the United States had their shuttling midfielders mark fullbacks and their fullbacks mark wingers, but that's because Ghana was playing with pretty traditional wingers. Cristiano Ronaldo is more of a wide forward, and whoever plays at right central midfield will probably have to check his runs quite a bit. That'll probably be Graham Zusi. Good luck, Graham Zusi!
Chris Wondolowski or Aron Johannsson vs. Portugal's defense - After Jozy Altidore exited against Ghana, Aron Johannsson was mostly ineffective. Even with Pepe out, the U.S. can't expect to be gifted two goals like they were in their opener, so whoever plays in that spot will need to be more effective than Johannsson was. Could this open the door for Chris Wondolowski, who is a bit slower and worse technically than Johannsson, but more physical and harder-working off the ball? Either way, the most advanced striker is going to need to play well for the USMNT.
Do I have to? Making a prediction for this game is nearly impossible because no one knows how fit Cristiano Ronaldo is. If he's anywhere near his best, it's difficult to envision the United States slowing him down and getting points from this game. If he's hobbled, though? Well, then Portugal might be pretty ordinary, especially with Fabio Coentrao definitely out and Hugo Almeida potentially out too. Based on the wild guess that the Portugal camp is completely overstating Ronaldo's fitness, 1-1 draw.